Monday 4 November 2019

Declarations of War, the State, and Parliament — The First World War

Declaring war is — or possibly perhaps was — the single most dramatic action two sovereigns can take. Rupturing all ties between the two powers, it is never an action taken lightly. So, it seems reasonable that some solemnity would accompany it in state documents.

This little series of articles will be in no particular order, mostly because I don't know a good order for it. Here we will consider the First World War, and assuming the Internet doesn't hate it, in the next one the Second World War (which is also the last time wars have been formally declared). Later, we'll go back further in time, and if I haven't bored you by then, we will come back and look at some of the emergency legislation itself.

War with Germany

On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France (this was part of a complicated series of declarations of war, most of which are unimportant here).

In order to actually invade France, Germany invades Belgium. Now, there was a treaty protecting Belgian neutrality to which both the United Kingdom and Germany were parties, hence on August 5th this notice (dated the 4th) appeared in the London Gazette [1].

As a side note: "asking for passports" is a diplomatic-ism basically saying "we had to leave because war was obviously unavoidable"

Now, something which would be unsurprising to those who read Parliamentary papers avidly but might be odd to everyone else, the only mention in the Journals on the 4th is actually the Prime Minister informing MPs an emergency proclamation had been issued by the King [2].

Far from being unimportant, this was a necessary expedient. As Hansard notes, the British ultimatum didn't expire until midnight. But obviously preparatory steps needed to be taken. Some had been done in the days and weeks before as war became increasingly unavoidable (e.g. the Postponement of Payments Bill had been passed the previous day) although others, like the Defence of the Realm Act, had to wait until the 8th August.

Meanwhile, in the Lords you might be forgiven for thinking there was nothing all that serious amiss. Except for the highly unusual suspension of two Standing Orders the next day without notice [3].

War with the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Since the formal title of the German Emperor was "His Imperial and Royal Majesty", as was the Austo-Hungarian Emperor, it would have been correct to describe both declarations of war as being between His Britannic Majesty and His Imperial and Royal Majesty. Which might have been just an iota confusing. This is something we will return to in the next War, however, because some subtle shifts happened in between.

War this time began in a slightly roundabout way. The French had no effective diplomatic links with Austria-Hungary, so they asked the British to pass on a note (and I know no French so I have no idea what it's about) and the British decided to follow suit in declaring war. As before, this was published in the gazette [4]. 

Intriguingly, the Russia Duma sent the Speaker a telegram! [5]

[no I'm not capable of getting these two images to line up, clearly HTML has moved on from my teenage years...]

The usual proclamations extending all the wartime legislation to Austria-Hungary were issued, or where legislation had yet to be enacted (this being very early in the war) they were simply included from the beginning.

Emergency Legislation

It cannot pass without comment that a bewildering array of emergency legislation was passed between August and the end of the session in October. In addition, a (for its day) exceptional Vote of Credit of £ 100 million was granted by the Commons. Worth noting that although there looks to be little debate here, much debate about this occurred on ancillary motions or on the adjournment (which wasn't unusual for the day. Then there was the Defence of the Realm Act, which began in a much shorter form than it ended up. Clearly a case of legislate in haste and repent at leisure (though there is an even more spectacular, at least in my opinion, example in 1939).

War with the Ottoman Empire

The declaration of war with the Sublime Porte occured while Parliament was prorogued, so the first reference to it in Parliament was in the (markedly brief) King's Speech [6] 

The entry in the Gazette [7] was no less perfunctory, being placed beneath an notice that His Serene Highness Prince Louis Alexander of Battenburg [8] had been made a Privy Counsellor.

At the same time, in the same issue of the Gazette, the proclamations required to extend all the wartime legislation to the Ottoman Empire were issued.

War with Bulgaria

We now skip forward a bit, to 1915. This notice [9] is interesting because it is the only one which explicitly uses the titles King of X rather than X State or similar. Intriguinly, as we will see in the next post in this series, things were quite different when war became necessary with the Kingdom in the next war. 

One thing I do find curious, though I suspect it makes pragmatic sense, is the care the Foreign Office seem to take to ensure that the time of a declaration is correctly local midnight — Bulgaria being two hours ahead of Greenwich at the time if Google is to be believed. Although it did seem to take the four days to get the notice into the Gazette.

[The Hansards for the Commons for this part of 1915 are missing, so we'll have to guess what they were up to]

Again, by proclamation or otherwise, the wartime legislation was extended to Bulgaria.


The actual announcement of the armistice was surprisingly sparing, although the country and Parliament was weary after four years of conflict. However, both Houses did adjourn to St. Margaret's for a thanksgiving service.

The announcement of the Treaty of Versailles was much more marked in the Commons, however [10].

As far as I can tell, the Treaty of Peace doesn't really appear in the Gazette. However, it did produce an Act of Parliament, after some surprisingly long debates.

Hopefully this was at least slightly interesting!

[1] The London Gazette, issue 28861, page 6161, 4th August 1914
[2] Commons Journal, volume 169, page 411
[3] HL Deb, volume 17, column 384
[4] The London Gazette, issue 28870, page 6385, 14th August 1914
[5] Commons Journal, volume 169, page 442
[6] HL Deb, volume 18, column 2
[7] The London Gazette, issue 28965, page 9011, 6th November 1914
[8] This guy, who was Earl Mountbatten of Burma's father.
[9] The London Gazette, issue 29333, page 10257, 19th October 1915
[10] HC Deb, volume 117, column 630

The London Gazette is licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0; Hansard and the Journals are licensed under the Open Parliament License; the historic Commons Journals can be found online (for which I am eternally grateful)


  1. My French is very patchy, but the diplomatic note basically seems to say that Austria-Hungary is the initiator of the hostilities in Europe (here it cites the declaration of war against Serbia), her troop movements menace France, and she's therefore put herself in a state of war with France in which France will do what it takes to defend herself.

    Assuming that 'il' in the second paragraph refers to Austria, I think it's saying that Austria's declaration of war on Russia constitutes an intervention in Germany's war against Russia and France, and that France was fighting on the same side as Russia.

    1. Well, that would certainly make sense given that that is basically what happened :-)

    2. Actually I think I may have mixed up côte & côté, in which case that last bit may in fact be about fighting already happening on the French coasts.